Have you ever heard someone say of another person “They’re too sensitive?” Maybe that other person was you, and you found the characterization to be unfair or a little simplistic. It’s common nowadays in popular media and through anecdotes that people share to say that people are more sensitive now than in the past. The truth is that there isn’t any evidence that backs up the claim that people are more sensitive today than in years gone by.

What can be said is that in our time, there is both an increased willingness to acknowledge the sensitivities of others, as well as a growing ability to accommodate a variety of needs and personalities, and that includes highly sensitive people. If you’re a highly sensitive person, knowing how to cope with it can make a world of difference in your quality of life.

What is a highly sensitive person?

A psychologist by the name of Elaine Aron developed the concept of highly sensitive persons (HSPs) to describe individuals who have a significant sensitivity to different forms of stimuli. A highly sensitive person is thought to be more sensitive to physical, emotional, or social stimuli, and this is often referred to as having sensory processing sensitivity, or SPS. Aron estimates that around 15–20% of the population can be categorized as highly sensitive.

While the American Psychological Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) does not list sensory processing sensitivity as a diagnosis, it does include sensory processing disorder, which HSPs often experience. Being a highly sensitive person is a personality trait that carries strengths and unique challenges.

What makes a person highly sensitive likely depends on several factors such as one’s environment, genetics, and early childhood experiences. High sensitivity is hereditary, and one’s genetics, specifically the dopamine system, may contribute to high sensitivity. This system affects one’s personality and may make some people more susceptible than others to becoming highly sensitive.

Additionally, research indicates that a lack of parental warmth when a person is growing up may cause that child to develop high sensitivity and carry this trait into adulthood. Negative early childhood experiences such as trauma can increase the likelihood of becoming an HSP as an adult.

How being highly sensitive can affect a person

If you are a highly sensitive person, that can be quite stressful in its own right, and it can raise certain challenges in your relationships with others. With support, however, being highly sensitive can bring certain benefits, and these may include having a thriving inner life and being deeply empathetic toward others. This can be highly beneficial in relationships, where being empathetic can foster better listening and deeper connection.

Being a highly sensitive person involves more than just being sensitive to stimuli. Some other characteristics that a highly sensitive person may possess include having stronger positive and negative emotional responses to stimuli than most people, being perceptive of subtle differences between things, having a low pain threshold, as well as having a low tolerance to sensory input like sounds or visuals.

As such, a highly sensitive person may find themselves being impacted in several ways in daily life, including the following:

Being deeply affected by beauty or emotions

A highly sensitive person will tend to feel deeply moved by the beauty that surrounds them, whether in creation or art. They might find themselves crying while watching touching clips online or in movies.

Being appreciative and grateful for the little things

Because of their ability to perceive subtleties, highly sensitive people appreciate things such as a good meal, fine wine, or a beautiful song in a way and on a level that most people can’t. While these sensitivities make them more susceptible to feeling existential angst, they are also able to feel deeply grateful for what they have.

Being overwhelmed

Heightened sensitivity makes a person more vulnerable to being affected by tension, violence, or conflict in a situation or even in a movie. A highly sensitive person may find themselves feeling overwhelmed by these things, and they may choose to deal with it by avoiding such situations or stimuli.

Deep and meaningful relationships

A highly sensitive person tends to form deep and meaningful relationships with others, and they care immensely for their loved ones.

Their ability to empathize makes them caring and supportive friends who are attuned to the needs of the people around them. Being deeply empathetic can make a person better able to detect others’ motives and inclinations, which can position them to be good negotiators, managers, and leaders.

Coping strategies for HSPs

Being a highly sensitive person means that you are vulnerable to certain stimuli and can find particular situations stressful and highly uncomfortable. It may not always be possible or desirable to avoid those situations, and that makes it important to be able to find healthy coping mechanisms.

If you’re a highly sensitive person, there are a few coping strategies that you can use that can help you deal with feelings of anxiety and being overwhelmed when you’re in certain situations. Some of the coping strategies you can use include the following:

Prioritize self-care and take time for yourself

HSPs tend to get more stressed when faced with difficult situations that others might not find stressful. It’s important to know yourself and what you can handle. While you can’t always avoid situations that make you feel overwhelmed, it’s helpful to know when to step back from those situations and set healthy boundaries that help you preserve your health. Being able to set boundaries is a necessary skill and vital for your well-being.

Part of the boundaries you may need to set relate to the close friendships and relationships you have with others. You may be a supportive friend for others, but for your own sake, you also need to be okay with pulling back at times and limiting how much time you spend with people, particularly those individuals that you may find a bit too emotionally draining.

Make a list of things you’re grateful for

To help stave off anxiety and maintain perspective, making a concerted effort to name the things you’re grateful for is an important tool. The apostle Paul wrote in one of his letters that believers are to “Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18, NIV).

It can be a helpful practice each morning when you wake up, and every night before going to sleep to think about and name three things that you’re grateful for.

Use your voice

In common spaces at work or school, one way to deal with sensory overload is to advocate for yourself and others for accommodations to be made for HSPs. These may include a quiet room or quiet zones or reducing harsh lighting in the office space.

Minimize sensory input

You don’t always have the option of leaving a loud place or one where you feel sensory overload. Instead, what you can do may be to use tools such as sunglasses, earplugs, and a good pair of noise-canceling headphones to minimize sensory input and make the environment more comfortable. Additionally, you can also choose to wear items without tags, seams, or other types of sensory input as these may contribute to sensory overload.

Have a safe zone

If you share your house with other people who aren’t highly sensitive like you are, consider setting up at least one area of the house to be a low-stimulation zone that you can retreat to when you need it. The room can have blackout curtains to keep light out, and it can also be soundproofed to minimize outside noise coming in.

Consider psychotherapy (talk therapy)

Being a highly sensitive person may be affecting you negatively, and you don’t know how to cope with the challenges facing you. If this is you, don’t hesitate to talk to someone like a Christian counselor. Talk therapy can be a valuable tool in helping you develop coping skills, as well as managing the anxiety and/or depression that often accompanies being a highly sensitive person.

If you have a family member or a loved one who’s a highly sensitive person, you can also talk to a counselor who can help and guide you in how to be there, interact with, and understand someone with HSP.

“Dandelion”, Courtesy of Andreas Halsinger, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Peeking Through the Foliage”, Courtesy of Drew Dizzy Graham, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Dozing”, Courtesy of Aiony Haust, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Flower on Bible”, Courtesy of Timothy Eberly, Unsplash.com, CC0 License